When the lights went down at Capital Centre last night, from the dark stage came the unmistakable sound of a Cajun band: accordion, fiddle, acoustic guitar and washboard.

The lights came up on the John Cougar Mellencamp Band, an Indiana group rocking to a Louisiana beat. Soon there was Mellencamp himself, sporting a mane as thick and long as Jim Morrison's and a black suit not unlike Johnny Cash's.

He sang his recent hit single "Paper and Fire" with such passion that this parable of dreams deferred and denied took on an improbable sense of stubborn optimism. He followed this with "Jack and Diane," which was transformed from cynicism into sympathy by the folk instruments and the communal sing-along with the crowd.

It was a gutsy move by Mellencamp to begin the show with two of his biggest hits, but it showed his confidence that the crowd was with him.

Mellencamp's confidence was justified, for he has matured into one of the most charismatic performers in rock 'n' roll, and his nine-member troupe has become one of the best bands anywhere. Mellencamp is not much of a songwriter, but his live show is one of those collective rituals of reaffirmation that make arena rock worth all the trouble.

The nine musicians had improved in every way since their last time out in 1985: Mellencamp cut back on the bombast and concentrated instead on real singing; this time the three female members were fully integrated into the group, as were the folk instruments.

"Blood on the Scarecrow" finally became as scary as the title promised, and Mellencamp did a passable James Brown dance imitation on "Down and Out in Paradise."

He closed the first set by singing a slow, hymnlike version of "Everybody Needs a Hand to Hold" alone with an acoustic guitar. That song segued into Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang," with the band and the crowd becoming a gospel choir behind Mellencamp's reverential vocal.